Invisible Damage: The Hidden Cost of Breathing Polluted Air

by Dr. Muhammad Nasir

To say that a healthy, productive and innovative labor force is essential for sustainable economic growth is stating the obvious. It is no secret that investment in human capital through education and skill development helps create such a workforce. What is not so obvious, or something we turn a blind eye to, is the fact that air pollution is a major threat to achieving this goal.

The WHO estimates that 90 percent of the population breathe polluted air resulting in the death of 7 million people every year. Air pollution is associated with cardiovascular health and respiratory infections and diseases. Approximately one third of the deaths from lung cancer and heart diseases, including stroke, are associated with air pollution.  There is ample evidence to prove that exposure to polluted air adversely affects worker productivity. Hence, the health impact of air pollution results in significant economic cost to national output. For the top 15 greenhouse gas emitting countries, this cost is estimated to be 4% for their GDP.

Pollution becomes more dangerous when vulnerable groups – such as children – are exposed to it. This is for two reasons; children’s immune system has not fully developed at a young age, and their lungs are still growing. Resultantly, they breathe in more air, and therefore more toxic air, per body weight compared to adults. Secondly, and this is usually ignored despite being more important, the particulate matter in the toxic air can damage their brain development.  This is because the ultra fine pollution particles, such as PM2.5 – particulate matter with less than or equal to 2.5 microns in diameter – can easily penetrate into the blood stream and reach the brain. The consequent reduction in the blood flow to the brain may affect cognitive development in children.    

But should economists be concerned about this neurological evidence? The answer is a definite yes!

Empirical evidence suggests that exposure to air pollution is associated with cognitive issues including memory loss, lowered verbal and non-verbal IQ, and reduced test scores. Moreover, it also creates neurological and behavioral problems such as attention deficit disorder.

Cognitive development in formative years is found to be associated with socioeconomic issues in adult life. Lower cognitive ability (e.g. IQ) during childhood can reduce future wages.

Dr. Maria Neira of the WHO said “the true cost of climate change is felt in our hospitals and in our lungs”. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to add that the true cost of climate change is also felt in our brains.  Exposure to polluted air also has a hidden but long term welfare cost.

It is not readily observed or easily detectable, so it remains uncured and causes invisible damage. On the other hand, impact on physical health can be observed and are even treatable. Ignoring effects on cognitive development, however, underestimates the true health cost of exposure to pollution. 

This has been the story of most developing countries, especially those in Africa and Asia; and Pakistan is no exception. Ironically, the health impacts of environmental deterioration have failed to attract ample attention in Pakistan. The only time it draws attention to being a health issue is when there is smog in Lahore. It is unfortunate that this problem has to be grave enough to make breathing difficult to get noticed. The absence of smog, however, does not imply a lack of pollution.

It is still in the air. The transport sector contributes to it. The industry also makes the air dirtier. One of the them – the brick kiln industry- is a major emitter of particulate matter. And we have around 20,000 of them across the country. It does contribute about 1.5% to our GDP, but it imposes a huge cost on our future generations. 

It is dangerous. It affects our hearts and our lungs, and most importantly, our brains. A recent study by PIDE concludes that exposure to particulate matters (PM10 and PM2.5) emitting from brick kilns in Peshawar lower the cognitive ability of exposed children by up to 1 standard deviation. This is correspondent to a decrease of about 20% in future wages of these children. Imagine the cost for entire country.

We cannot have healthy and productive labor force if we continue to breath in dirty air. We cannot be innovative if this air causes invisible damage to our brains. The investment in human capital through education and training can only be effective if we are active physically and cognitively.

It is time that the issue of weak regulations and implementation, or the lack of it, should be put behind. The polluting sectors and industries need to be regulated. For instance, the brick kiln industry should be regulated for its design structure and proximity to communities. Collaborative efforts are also needed to help the industry switch to cleaner technologies.

This is doable. An encouraging example is that of the Punjab Environmental Protection Department, which is collaborating with National Energy Efficient Conservation Authority (NEECA), All Brick Kiln Owners Association of Pakistan, and International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) to create awareness and train entrepreneurs in creating and using cost-effective, environmental-friendly technology such as Zig-Zag kilns.

Such examples should also be followed in other sectors and industries to secure our future.

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